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Even Now I Know

Today the Catholic Church celebrates St. Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus. We all know Martha, of “Martha and Mary,” sisters of Lazarus. Usually when we think of Martha, we think of the exchange between her and Jesus when Martha is bustling around working while her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus feet. Martha complains, and Jesus admonishes her that “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” That scene seems to diminish Martha (notwithstanding the fact that Martha took care of necessary tasks and the world could not survive without its Marthas).

What most draws me to Martha, however, is her expression of faith that hear in today’s Gospel from John.

Martha’s beloved brother Lazarus had been ill and Martha had been expecting Jesus to show up to heal him, as he had healed so many others. She is bitterly disappointed and more than a bit upset with Jesus when he finally arrives. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she accuses.

But she doesn’t stop there, adding, “even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” And when Jesus asks if she believes that he is the resurrection and the life, that anyone who lives and believes in him will never die, Martha affirms, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

This is Martha’s shining moment. She demonstrates enormous faith, even as she is mourning her brother’s death. We don’t know what significance Martha’s affirmation had for Jesus at that moment, but in his humanness, her affirmation surely meant something to Him. It is an affirmation that reveals the glory of God.

In terms of our own lives, the Women’s Bible Commentary frames the question Martha faced this way: “Can I let go of the limits that one places on what is possible in order to embrace the limitless possibilities offered by Jesus?” Can we?

Several years ago, I gave a short post-communion reflection at a retreat house on the feast of St. Martha. You can listen to the podcast of that reflection here:

Johann Sebastian Bach died on this day in 1750. A devout Lutheran, Bach recognized his musical abilities as a gift from God. Music was, for him, an act of praise and devotion and most of his compositions were written for use in church.

Two days before his death, and virtually blind, Bach dictated from his deathbed his final work, a chorale Before Thy Throne I Come. It is a prayer we might all pray.

Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit
O Gott, und dich demfctig bitt
Wend dein genadig Angesicht
Von mir, dem armem Sunder nicht.

Before your throne I now appear,
O God, and bid you humbly,
Turn not your gracious face From me,
a poor sinner.

Ein selig end emir bescher,
am jugsten Tag etwecke mich,
Herr, dabich dich schau ewiglich;
Amen, amen, erhore mich.

Confer on me a blessed end,
On the last day awaken me,
Lord, that I may see you eternally;
Amen, amen, hear me.

In today’s first Mass reading from the Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”

This is a little like finding the lamp with the genie: “Your wish is my command. Ask anything.”

ANYTHING! What would you ask for?

It is so tempting to think small, to ask for things that satisfy our immediate material needs and causes of pain and anxiety. My current house has been on the market for a couple of months and we don’t yet have a buyer. Since we have already closed on the purchase of another one, this is no small source of anxiety for me. How tempting to say, “Lord, please, just let someone make an offer on my house today.”

But in our hearts, we know that that sort of wish would not be worthy of the gift God offered Solomon.

Solomon knew that. He doesn’t ask “for a long life for [himself], nor for riches, nor for the life of [his] enemies.” Instead, Solomon asks for wisdom: “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”

I sat with the passage this morning, and with Solomon’s response. What would I ask for? My first thought, not surprisingly given the level of conflict in Gaza and elsewhere was for an end to conflict, an end to war and violence.

And for myself? What if I could wish for something for myself? I know the answer to that; it is part of my prayer often. Let me love more, Lord. Let me love like you.

What would you ask for?

P.S. In full disclosure, I do also pray that someone soon makes an offer to buy my house. :)

The responsorial psalm for today’s Mass is from Psalm 84, a psalm described by Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr as a pilgrim song.

In the most powerful lines for me in that psalm, the psalmist shares, “I had rather one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I had rather lie at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”

When I read those words this morning, I was reminded of Stuart Kestenbaum’s poem Psalm. It harkens back to a different psalm but conveys the same longing and desire expressed in today’s psalm. The poem always touches me. Perhaps it will touch you also.

The only psalm I had memorized was the 23rd
and now I find myself searching for the order
of the phrases knowing it ends with surely
goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life and I will dwell
in the house of the Lord forever only I remember
seeing a new translation from the original Hebrew
and forever wasn’t forever but a long time
which is different from forever although
even a long time today would be
good enough for me even a minute entering
the House would be good enough for me,
even a hand on the door or dropping today’s
newspaper on the stoop or looking in the windows
that are reflecting this morning’s clouds in the first light.

My Camino Saint

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. James, apostle and martyr.

There are several references to James and his brother John in the Gospel in which he doesn’t appear so admirable. One is today’s Gospel reading where his mother approached Jesus with her sons asking that they “sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom,” causing the other apostles to become “indignant at the two brothers.” Another is when he wants Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town that failed to offer them a proper reception, perhaps one of the incidents that caused Jesus to call him and his brother Boanerges – “Sons of Thunder.”

But James responded to Jesus’ call, dropping everything to follow him. And he was one of the first to follow Jesus to his death; James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I.

Tradition holds that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain and that, after his death in Judea, his remains found their way to Galicia in Spain, and they were later moved to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

When I arrived at the Catheral after walking the 500 mile Camino Francais from St. Jean Pied de Port, I visited first the large bust of St. James that sits high behind the main altar and then the crypt with his coffin below the altar.

I don’t know if James is really buried in that crypt. When I knelt there that’s what I pretty much said to him: “I have no idea if your remains are here or not, James, but I’m here, so let’s talk.”

Buried there or not, James is the patron saint of Spain and special friend to pilgrims on the Camino. And so on this day I honor James and ask for his friendship and inspiration. And I ask for his alacrity in following Jesus, and his strength to do so to the death.

As I sat in my prayer space at home this morning, I looked out and saw the automatic sprinklers operating in my yard and those of neighbors. The scene reminded me of a post my friend Richard wrote last week, sharing a dialogue sent to him by his brother-in-law. The dialogue is humorous, but makes a point that is anything but funny.

Here is a portion or the dialogue:

GOD SAID:
“Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.”

St. FRANCIS:
It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD:
Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS:
Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD:
The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make theSuburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS:
Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -sometimes twice a week.

GOD:
They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST.. FRANCIS:
Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD:
They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS:
No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD:
Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS:
Yes, Sir.

GOD:
These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST.. FRANCIS:
You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

You can read the entirety of the dialogue here.

By pretty much any standard of measurement, we are doing a pretty miserable job of stewardship of this earth we have been given. We don’t conserve the resources we have, our actions degrade the environment, and what we do (and don’t do today) will have enormous consequences for those who follow us.

We need to do a better job.

My friend Maria Scaperlanda shared a blog post by a young woman she knows who is doing volunteer work in Honduras.

On her blog, the woman shared a small experience that helped deepen her understanding of God’s unconditional love.
The woman had needed to find a plunger and went door-to-door to her neighbors until she found one to borrow. What happened next had an enormous effect on her. Shortly after returning home with the plunger, the girl from whom she borrowed it came to her door asking to borrow some sugar.

Sounds normal, but this is the point where our omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-everything God humbly lined His heart up with mine in such a fashion that let me glimpse at His daughter standing in my doorway the way He sees her daily. She simply asked for a cup of sugar the way any normal human person would. “Since I lent you my plunger, you need to lend me a cup of sugar.” Logical, equal, fair. But her request didn’t seem fair. Her words placed a condition on our friendship that disqualified a favor done out of desire into one done out of obligation. This interaction left me unsettled somewhere deep in my heart, almost sad that she expected me to need a reason to do something nice for her. I wanted to do a favor for her because that is the nature of friendship, not because I owed her.

It was a silly moment to cause so much turmoil in my heart and mind, but here I am a week later feeling as if I have been punched in the face with an inkling of understanding of God’s love for us. Sometimes, even without knowing it, we approach God with the same “Since I…you need to…” concept of relationship. Since I prayed everyday this week, you need to give me good grades”. “Since I sacrificed a whole year of my life serving orphan babies in Honduras, You need to make me Saint Jordan; Patroness of sarcasm and cheesy blog posts.” The thing is, God already wants good things for us, but He doesn’t need our reasons for giving them. He has His own reason; we are His dearly cherished creation. That’s it….

Before this moment, I understood in my mind that God’s love is unconditional. But I had never felt in my heart the sense of distance from a friend who did not trust that I would love her without reason. Perhaps God feels this same distance from us when we place in front of Him our deeds and reasons and accomplishments, and not our bare hearts ready to trust His capacity to love.

You can read the whole post here.

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